Notebooks

Some Unattractive Meta-Ethical Positions

14 Mar 2018 18:27

One of my vices is reading meta-ethics, i.e., philosophers arguing not about what is right and wrong or good and bad, but about what kinds of things count as good and bad, and how we could know. Like most of my vices, it is idle, yet not something I will give up any time soon. But it has its frustrations (also like most of my vices...); one of them is that it seems to show a severe lack of logical imagination. So here are some meta-ethical positions which do not seem to me to be obviously self-contradictory, but also notably absent from the philosophical literature. I am bad at naming things, so I'll just number them as they occur to me.

  1. Objective ethical truths exist, but they involve concepts which are intrinsically beyond human comprehension. By analogy: it's pretty well-established that many animals have some kind of sense of number, and are able to grasp "more" or "less" or "equal". (See, e.g., Dehane's The Number Sense.) But it seems absurd to think that they have the concepts to grasp the (pretty objective-seeming) truths of arithmetic, and not just because nobody has taught them. Like animals which have evolved a dim numerical sense, we may have evolved a dim ethical sense, while simply being organically incapable of grasping. Murdering kin who have done us no harm doesn't sit well with most of us, and this may be objectively true, just as it's true that 3 < 4. Thinking that therefore we must be able to figure out ethics is like expecting that, because a squirrel knows that 3 nuts are less than 4 nuts, it can grasp Fermat's last theorem.
  2. (Related to (1)) Objective ethical truths exist, but they involve concepts which nobody has formulated yet. We are not so much in the position of a squirrel trying to grasp arithmetic, as of our own ancestors with dim notions of number and space, before the long, slow process of cognitive development that led to ideas like "addition", "angle", "area", etc. to "zero". These are all notions with histories, requiring many long ages of both daily use and occasional genius to be shaped into the tools which do let us grasp mathematical truths. Expecting our current moral and ethical vocabularies to be up to the job is like thinking that we should have been able to do mathematics as soon as we learned to count on our fingers.
  3. Objective ethical truths exist, and involve concepts we can grasp, but they are vastly more complicated than can fit in our minds. On Kolmogorov complexity grounds, then, fragments of them which are small enough to fit into human minds will tend to seem bizarre and random, perhaps ritualistic or supersititious. (E.g., if, but only if, one sees exactly three birds flying to the west at dawn on the summer solstice, attacking a family member who has never harmed you is not only permitted but also obligatory.)
  4. Objective ethical truths exist, and human beings can comprehend them, but we are so constituted that we can never believe them, or act upon them. I leave open whether we are automatically to be condemned upon these grounds.
  5. Objective ethical truths exist, but they imply that human life in all its forms is utterly, irredeemably vile. Consequently, not only does acting ethically not making anyone happier, or improve anyone's life in any way, it is right and proper that it does so, because we are intrinsically hideous.

All of these are rather grim, but I don't see why that should be disqualifying.


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